The Taste with Vir: Why you need Valium when dealing with immigration officers

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There is no logic or pattern to how different countries handle immigration.(Unsplash)

A member of my family recently went to Malaysia for the first time. He had read that Malaysia only admitted Indians if they had an e-visa so he got himself one.

He was familiar with the concept. He has a Singapore e-visa and is always impressed by the fact that, at the Immigration counters at Changi Airport, they don’t even ask to see your e-visa. They scan your passport and, if a visa has been issued to you, it shows up immediately. Dubai has much the same sort of system.

So, my relative assumed that Kuala Lumpur would be the same. But just in case it was not, he showed the immigration officer his visa on his smart-phone screen.

No, said the immigration officer. Where was the print-out? Well, said my relative, it was all on the screen.

Not enough, said the officer. No paper copy means no entry into Malaysia.

My relative left the counter and began looking for a printer. There was not one to be found. Finally, he asked at the airport Information desk. There was a lounge at another terminal, they told him, which probably had a printer. He could take an airport train, go to the terminal, get a print-out and take a train back.

He did that, paid for the print-out and took the train back to his original terminal (where his luggage would be delivered) and showed a paper copy of his e-visa to the Immigration officer and was finally allowed in.

The process took an hour and a half and seemed longer because he had just got off a terrible night flight on something called Malindo Airlines, where he had not slept a wink. (On the other hand, his flight to Kuala Lumpur had not gone mysteriously missing or been shot out of the sky – look at the brighter side!)

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Perhaps he was just unlucky to get a foolish or bloody-minded immigration officer. They have them in every country including ours. Because otherwise, it is odd that a country that issues e-visas demands print outs. In India, even CISF jawans are content with looking at screens. Surely Malaysia’s immigration officers are bright enough to be able to do that? (Since you ask, I don’t know the answer. I went to Malaysia once to shoot a TV show over a decade ago and have never felt the desire to go back so I have very little to contribute in the way of personal experience)

I mention Malaysian Immigration only to make the point that the worst part of any arrival experience now is immigration. No matter where I am travelling to, I dread the queues at immigration counters, the rude officers and the general air of “you are at our mercy.”

Nor is there any logic or pattern to how different countries handle immigration. I used to think that in authoritarian societies, officers would be more full of their own importance while, in liberal democracies, they would be more laidback.

In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The United States, which calls itself the world’s greatest democracy, has the worst immigration officials in the world. It is not my case, that they are necessarily rude. (Some are but I have also had very good experiences). It is more a sense of not caring.

Earlier this year, I stood for over an hour in an immigration line at Washington DC. The vast majority of counters were unmanned and nobody gave a damn that the queue snaked across the arrival area and then spread to the outside of the building (towards the tarmac). Donald Trump has said that America has much worse airports than say, Asia. Here was proof that he was right.

In recent years, Heathrow has got nearly as bad. The lines at Terminal Four are interminable and the so-called Fast Track queue is longer than the “all classes” queue at most other airports. Once the UK leaves the EU and will not be able to have separate queues for EU citizens, the non-British citizen lines will get even worse.

Sometimes, immigration can surprise you. I always regard Japan as a superior civilization, where everything is as near perfection as possible. But that’s not true of immigration at Narita Airport which is chaotic and overcrowded. I still don’t understand how the Japanese, for whom appearances are everything, can allow this to be the first experience of Japan for visitors.

In contrast, most European countries are laidback about immigration. Rarely do you find long queues in France, German, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland etc. The one exception is Italy which has the worst airports in the world. So naturally, they also have the worst immigration. There is the same we-don’t-give-a-damn attitude that you find in America except that, unlike the US immigration officers, who take it all very seriously, the Italian officers I have seen are not terribly bright or careful. It is like they held an exam to join the immigration department and hired all those who came near the bottom in the results.

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Asian countries, on the whole, are much better. Bangkok is now well-organised though you can still have a bad experience. Last year, I was given the runaround by an ill-tempered officer who spoke no English but certainly knew how to shout.

Both Chinas make an effort. Immigration at Cheng Du, a few months ago was fine. Fifteen years ago, at Taipei airport, the immigration officer smiled at me when I showed him my visa “That’s the other China”, he said gently, before riffling through my passport and finding the visa for Taiwan.

In the Philippines (a great, much overlooked destination), not only do all of the staff speak perfect English and are courteous but they don’t bother with visas. If you have a valid, US, UK or Schengan visa, they let you in without any questions.

It is hard to generalize about other Asian countries but my advice would be: take a Valium before you go through immigration in Saigon. The ‘visa’ issued by the Embassy in Delhi is meaningless. You still have to stand in a queue for a second visa-type document at the airport, fill out a form, pay money, submit photos etc. That takes about half an hour. Then you stand in chaotic immigration queues for about an hour. (There is a fast track counter but the last time I was in Vietnam, they went to great lengths to obscure this fact).

People say, in defence of immigration officials in the US and the UK, that countries where there is a long tradition of illegal immigration and a real threat of terrorism need to be more careful.

I do not dispute this. But my criticism is that even before you get to the counter in say, New York where the officer decides whether you are there to blow up the Statue of Liberty or are foolish enough to believe what is inscribed on the statue (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free….”), you have already spent much too long queuing up.

If Third World countries can hire enough immigration officers, then why can’t the richest country in the world?

The Arab world is not noted for its adherence to liberal democracy and in much of the Gulf, there is a genuine concern about illegal immigration. Despite that, immigration counters in Dubai and Abu Dhabi (the two countries I have visited recently) are fully manned and the systems (for e-visas, identification etc.) are state of the art.

The best airport in the world, of course,is Singapore’s Changi. I am always impressed by the speed at which everything moves at Changi. immigration is no exception. Queues are relatively small and technology is used to minimize the time at the immigration desk. The last I was there,a few months ago, they were perfecting a technology that eliminated the need for an officer. You put your passport through a machine which scanned it and – if everything was in order – a gate swung open in a few seconds.

Which leaves, of course, the story of our own immigration officers. But that will take up too much space. It deserves a column by itself!

Another time…

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First Published: Oct 09, 2019 14:02 IST

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